New Report Reveals Some Migrant Children Detained In Jail-Like 'Secure' Facilities

The U.S. government has failed to uniformly pursue “prompt and continuous efforts” to unify unaccompanied migrant children with family, a newly released report by the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) has revealed. The organization worked with researchers from Stanford University to analyze federal data as part of oversight into the Flores Agreement, a 1997 settlement that established policy for the detention and treatment of immigrant minors in government custody.

Thereport, which was shared with members of Congress on December 9, found that migrant children could be held more than three months at some standard facilities and more than six months at jail-like “secure” facilities. Those secure facilities are similar to juvenile detention centers where American teens accused of serious crimes are held.

“I sleep in a locked jail cell,” one child being held at a secure facility told the report’s authors.

“The beds are thin mattresses on top of a block of cement and we don’t get pillows. I have a make-shift pillow that I make out of my sweaters or other clothes…The guards also push us, pepper spray us, and place the handcuffs excessively tight — to the point that wrist injuries frequently occur.”

Migrant children held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is part of the Department of Health & Human Services, have no “meaningful” opportunity to challenge where they are placed, regardless of how long they have been in custody, the report said. The ORR did not immediately respond to The North Star’s request for comment.

Children who pose a danger to themselves or others, or are charged with a criminal offense, can be placed in a secure facility under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, according to Melissa Adamson, an attorney for the NCYL’s Immigration and Legal Advocacy teams.

Adamson told The North Star that some migrant children are “stepped-up” into secure facilities over formal charges filed against them in the juvenile justice system, but some are stepped-up due to allegations by staff or clinicians “that may be arbitrary and unfounded.”

Neha Desai, the Director of Immigration at NCYL, told CBS News that it is typically the most vulnerable children “those with the most extensive trauma histories” that end up in the restrictive secure placements.

Why It Matters

Migrant children’s detention, particularly when they are held by the government away from their family for long periods of time, inflicts “profound and long-lasting injury” on the children. Studies of migrant children held by the U.S. government show they suffer from high rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicidal ideation.

“Being detained for such a long time has made me feel really bad,” a child being held in a secure facility told researchers. “I never used to have such problems with depression or anxiety, but since I have been detained I have become much more frustrated.”

The child continued: “Being detained at [the secure detention facility] makes me feel like I am going crazy. I am always alone with my thoughts and bad memories of things that have happened to me run through my head all day. I don’t know how I can improve my mental health if I am kept in a cage.”

Adamson noted that the report also found that between January 2018 and September 2019, more than half of unaccompanied children in ORR facilities were being held in sites with more than two hundred children. She noted that the reality for migrant children differs tremendously from state child welfare situations, where foster care group homes typically house between seven to 12 children.

“The harmful effects of institutionalization and large-scale congregate care on children’s health and welfare are well established,” Adamson said. “Child welfare experts have found that ‘children of all ages need long-term, committed adult connections in order to develop’ and congregate care facilities ‘mirror too closely aspects of maltreatment that set children up for lifelong developmental challenges.’”

Adamson noted that while congregate care facilities may provide for the basic survival needs of children, “the lack of reliable adult-child relationships is profoundly detrimental to children’s short- and long-term health outcomes.”

What Can be Done

Adamson told The North Star that her organization believes the government “could be doing much more to protect the health, safety and welfare of immigrant children.” The report pointed to several actions the federal government could take to insure children are reunited with their families and quickly removed from secure facilities.

The attorney pointed to two steps in particular that the government should consider: ensuring children receive meaningful due process before they’re stepped-up to a secure facility and developing stronger safeguards against indefinite restrictive placements. The report noted that if children must be placed in restrictive facilities, “they should remain there no longer than necessary.”

There are also other ways to help unaccompanied minors, Adamson said. She encouraged everyone to contact their state representatives and senators to voice their support for the maintenance of protections provided by the Flores Agreement and to encourage lawmakers to extend and improve those protections in new legislation.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia, Australia and the Americas.